My most vivid memory of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is standing with both of my feet inside a giant footprint thinking, “A hippo walked in this exact spot just a few moments ago…”
It’s from the first time I ever saw Lake St Lucia. I was in my first year of high school and had been invited to join in on my friend’s family trip up to Charter’s Creek (back when the rondavels were still around).
Growing up in Durban, I’d always been a bit of a beach bum, so this was my first real trip into the bush. I had no idea what to expect.
As soon as we turned off the N2 towards St Lucia, it felt like we were entering another world…
I remember stopping at the old gate to Charter’s Creek (where the old petrol pump is) to pay gate fees and fill the jerry cans and there in the shade of the overhanging thicket, was a bushbuck browsing along the edge of the road.
One day, if we are ever able to print our memories, this will be the one I’ll print in high resolution on a giant canvas and hang above the fireplace. It’s probably the moment that did more to reshape the course of my future than any other.
Shortly after that moment was when I found myself squishing my toes into the muddy footprints of a giant hippo and thinking just how crazy it was that there were places like this where I could share the same space as these kinds of animals – although, thankfully, not at the same time!
That trip opened up the natural world to me and gave me an insatiable desire to explore the outdoors, and I know of many others who have great stories from this incredible place too.
So, in this post, we’re going to be looking at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – and in particular, the ecosystems of the southern sections of the reserve.
Here’s a short video narrated by our friend Sakhile Dube to kick things off:
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is the second largest protected area in South Aftica (after the Kruger National Park). It is home to the country’s largest Marine Protected Area, which connects with Mozambique, as well as its largest estuary.
These two massive bodies of water (the Indian Ocean and Lake St Lucia) help nourish and support the 8 interlinking ecosystems that make up the park.
In 1999, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park was crowned as South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage for its ecological significance and natural beauty.
In this post we’re going to explore the 5 main ecosystems that make up the southern section of the park and what makes them so incredible.
1. The Indian Ocean marine ecosystem
The largest ecosystem in the southern section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is the Indian Ocean. Along this part of the coastline, the Indian Ocean is categorized by warm water and coral reefs that provide a habitat for hundreds of different fish, invertebrate and large mammal species.
One of the most notable large mammals, the humpback whale, can be spotted of the coast of St Lucia from June until November when around 6,500 individuals cruise past on their annual migration.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is also famous for another kind of aquatic visitor – the turtle. There are two species of turtle, the loggerhead and leatherback turtles, that utilise the warm sand dunes along this stretch of coastline to lay their eggs. During nesting season, turtles can be seen exiting the ocean and scaling the beaches to dig out nests in the sand. During the hatching season, these nests are dug open by the new hatchlings where they will face their biggest challenge – the dash across the sand to the ocean.
2. Eastern Shores
The Eastern Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park refers to the section of the reserve that is on the eastern edge of Lake St Lucia and is categorized by large sand dunes and grasslands that fringe the coastline.
When approaching the park from a distance, the huge dunes could easily be mistaken for mountains, however, they are just soft beach sand held together by the trees and vegetation growing on top of them. In fact, this section of the park is home to Maphelane – the highest forested sand dune in Africa.
The grasslands are home to a number of grazing animals including buffalo, hippos, zebra and a variety of large and small antelope.
3. Lake St Lucia
Lake St Lucia is the centrepiece of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and is home to some 1,200 hippos as well as around 2,000 crocodiles. Not to mention Zambezi sharks which use the lake as a nursery.
The lake is also home to a number of water birds like flamingos, terns and pelicans as well as other species like fish eagles, swifts, weavers and swallows which can be spotted all around the lake.
4. Western Shores
The habitat throughout the Western Shores section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park resembles the savannah lands found in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve. There is also far less rainfall in this part of the reserve, so environmental conditions vary greatly from the Eastern Shores section. While it’s easier to spot large animals like waterbuck and elephants in the open plains sections, the forested areas are where you will find an abundance of birdlife, including some rare finds like the Green Malkoa and Narina Trogon.
There is an access point to Lake St Lucia at Charter’s Creek where you can walk along a short pier that extends into the lake. However, beware of wandering buffalo that often graze at this site.
5. The swamp forest
The areas all around Lake St Lucia are home to a variety of mangrove and reed species.
These swamps help to filter sediment and debris from high rains as water pours into the lake. They are also a favorite spot for hippos and buffalo. For a closer look, down towards the estuary mouth is a beautiful boardwalk that skirts the estuary mouth, through the forest and onto the beach.
Map of the southern sections of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Visiting the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
The town of St Lucia is less than a three hour drive north from Durban and the King Shaka International Airport. What is more, the town is perfectly equipped for visitors, with a host of accommodation, restaurants and tour and charter companies of excellent repute.
Whether you are looking for high-adrenaline and energy-demanding activities, to be treated to a five star luxury safari or simply want to sit and watch the sun set over the waterway from one of the jetties in town, St Lucia has something for you.
Be sure to pack these day-hike essentials before you head out and be sure to have some good hiking boots (These are the ones Bevan uses and these are the ones Jill uses). If you’re looking for great hiking and trail gear then we can highly recommend Salomon. We only promote the brands we use and love – and we love Salomon! If you live in South Africa then check out their online store and get quality gear delivered to your door.
What to do next
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